Author Christopher Buckley remembers clearly when his novel “Thank You for Smoking” (now a Fox Searchlight release) was first optioned as a film because he had an excellent suggestion for a screenwriter: himself.
“In my callow, jejune way I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot!’ and you could hear the frost forming on the telephone lines,” he chuckles. “They said, ‘This will be a major motion picture. We don’t want to walk you through your first script.’ Very early on, I realized this was no place for me to hang out.”
So it was, and so it almost always is: Authors write books. Screenwriters write screenplays. And while there are strong exceptions to every rule (Herman Wouk, Larry McMurtry), a savvy author tends to know when to step aside and let the filmmakers take charge — or, in some cases, the sausage makers. For some reason, authors tend to refer to pork products when discussing Hollywood.
Zoe Heller, author of “What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel” (now Fox Searchlight’s “Notes on a Scandal”), shared a few notes with screenwriter Patrick Marber but kept away from much of the production. “I didn’t want to be a fifth wheel lurking around the set,” she says. “It’s a bit like that old line about seeing sausages made: The sausage may be highly delicious when it comes out, but I didn’t necessarily want to be involved in the sausage-making process.”
Then there’s “Little Children,” which author Tom Perrotta (along with director Todd Field) co-scripted for New Line. “I was involved right from the start, knew the people involved and got to help make the sausage,” Perrotta says.
If an author wants to keep his hands in the mix, maintaining a relationship with a Hollywood production company helps. Having had a good experience with Bona Fide Prods. with the adaptation of his book “Election” (which became a 1999 feature film starring Matthew Broderick), Perrotta took his later novel directly to his friends.
“The normal thing is to have your book optioned, and then you have a meeting with producers, but you don’t know them,” he explains. “In this case, they were my friends and longtime collaborators. So, I didn’t say, ‘Let’s get Todd Field.’ I just let them draw up a list of directors. Todd was on top of it.”
Whether in the sausage factory or not, authors say they try to detach their mental ownership of the stories from the film versions. Assured that their novel is out on the shelves, they do some self-convincing that what goes up on the screen is from another universe.
Ultimately, watching a professionally made, well-acted version of their story takes some of the sting away.
“I’ve seen the film three times,” says Christopher Priest, author of “The Prestige,” now in release through Buena Vista. “Only on the third time did I feel able to watch it as a movie. Before, I was just looking at it and thinking, ‘Well, holy shit.’ I was thinking, ‘God, I like that,’ and ‘Oh, I wish I’d thought of that.'”
When a filmmaker can visually improve what an author originally comes up with, it’s a genuine compliment: Priest says helmer Christopher Nolan’s (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) choice to open the film by panning over a bunch of top hats sitting in a snowy clearing was “extremely good visual shorthand. It was a very economical distillation of my idea into a visual image.”
A film that lifts directly from the source material also can be thrilling, as “The Good German” author Joseph Kanon learned. “It’s thrilling when you are watching it for the first time and there are certain points in it that are truly taken from the original text, and they become alive to you. That’s a thrill that every writer looks for.”
“That said,” he adds, “the film is certainly not the book. It’s (Steven Soderbergh’s) film (for Warner Bros. Pictures) — and my book.”
Then again, authors who don’t care for their adaptations — or the buzz surrounding those adaptations — tend to simply not get on the phone. Sometimes, a film version can take on an even bigger life than the book that planted the seed. Although that hasn’t been Heller’s experience, she does acknowledge that “there might be situations in which it would be highly galling to be the humble author in the shadows. Movies do occupy this huge place in the popular culture, which unfortunately, literary fiction no longer does.”
In the end, authors say they generally can sit in a darkened theater without passing judgment on a script, whether it originates from their own work or not.
“I’m just a moviegoer,” Buckley says. “Reading is not an innocent pleasure. You’re always looking for what you can steal or emulate, or you’re comparing yourself to the master writers. With a movie, I’m just the guy eating popcorn in the fifth row — ideally in an aisle seat.”
Oscar Watch: Writers